In Memoriam: Barbara Harlow and the Necessity of “Renewed Histories of the Future,” by Rania Jawad

NOTE: This essay will appear in Volume 13:3 of JMEWS, a themed issue on the gender and sexuality of borders and margins. It has not yet undergone copy editing by Duke University Press.


Barbara Harlow and the Necessity of “Renewed Histories of the Future”
In Memoriam (1948-2017)

By Rania Jawad


Barbara Harlow’s commitment to struggles for liberation and justice was always at the same time a commitment to academic inquiry. She entwined them and located emancipatory potential in each even as both were subject to her criticism. She emphasized the contradictions and debates within these projects as generative of what she called “renewed histories of the future” (Harlow 1996, 10). She saw construction and (re)construction of the historical record as part of the process of forging alternative futures. Harlow focused on the possibility of producing narratives that challenge conditions of domination and oppression, as well as the disciplinary boundaries and modes of analysis within the academy that supported these conditions and restricted “more comparative and critical ways”[1] of reading and writing. Her work was always critical, generative, and political.

The author of several edited volumes and numerous articles, essays, and book reviews that crossed geographies and disciplines, Harlow grounded her discussions of anti-imperialist struggle and its cultural politics in “theoretical-historical” or “historicized-theoretical” formulations. When she wrote about a figure, she outlined the material-historical conditions of each life to explain how they theorized resistance, dissent, and literature. Her work challenged the assumption that theory is solely the “domain of the western critic and intellectual” (Harlow 1986a, 1). She names and took issue with intellectual trafficking in third world narratives as “raw material” to be processed in the first world academy. She defined her practice as deploying the critical perspectives and theories of those she wrote about and with whom she stood in solidarity.

Harlow discussed the writings of revolutionary strugglers, political prisoners and critical dissenters. Her first book, Resistance Literature (1987), brought together writings of national liberation struggles from Africa, Latin America, and the Arab world. She challenged the isolationism of area studies and the formalist tendencies of literary criticism that claim literature to be an autonomous arena of activity. She borrowed the book’s title from the Palestinian revolutionary writer and critic Ghassan Kanafani’s 1966 study of literature produced by Palestinians under Israeli military-colonial rule (Kanafani 1966). Her essay “Egyptian Intellectuals and the Debate on the ‘Normalization of Cultural Relations’” with Israel is informed by Kanafani’s refusal of “cultural ‘cooperation’ with the enemy” (Harlow 1986b, 36). Literary and cultural production, she argued alongside Arab intellectuals, are never politically neutral. As a scholar in the Western academy, she cautioned against academic practices that may “become just one more example of cultural imperialism or renewed cultural invasion” (ibid., 58).

Harlow engaged with Kanafani’s ideas on its own national liberationist terms. She translated into English and introduced a collection of his short stories (Kanafani 1984), and did the same for a public lecture he gave to Arab intellectuals and writers in the wake of the naksa, the 1967 Arab defeat that resulted in Israeli colonization of additional Palestinian, Syrian, and Egyptian lands (Kanafani 1990). Harlow located Kanafani’s critique of “blind language”—where terms such as “revolutionary,” “justice,” and “freedom” have no meaning, specificity, or connection to a clear anti-imperial praxis—to the political debates of its time and to her contemporary moment (Harlow 1990). In addition to Kanafani, she often drew on other revolutionary actors such as Amilcar Cabral, Roque Dalton, and Ruth First, all of whom were assassinated because of their resistance work. Harlow’s question: If they were alive today, “are there not still those who would feel it necessary to assassinate them?” is to remind us of the continuing urgency and relevance of politically-engaged work and words. A little over a month after Harlow died, on 6 March 2017, 31-year-old Basil al-Araj was assassinated by the Israeli Army during a raid in Ramallah because of his commitment to revolutionary struggle. Described by Palestinians as the “engaged intellectual,” Basil was imprisoned by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in coordination with the Israeli authorities in April 2016 after he and others were accused of reviving the armed struggle. A vocal critic of PA politics and its structural complicity with Israeli colonialism, Basil brought to life the history of Palestinian anti-colonial resistance through his local oral history tours, organizing with activists, and social media engagement. This history of resistance, Basil insisted, was not the past but the living present.

In 2011, Samah Selim called for: “a new critical literary history” that articulates “new questions of method and theory that emerge from local—national or regional—contexts rather than as an appendage of contemporary Euro-American epistemologies and intellectual histories” (Selim 2011, 735). Harlow’s work exemplified this critical literary history from the early 1980s. Harlow more than once drew on the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who in 1981 delineated between two opposing aesthetics in literature: “the aesthetic of oppression and exploitation” and that of the “human struggle for total liberation” where literary categories were “‘participatory’ in the historical processes of hegemony and resistance to domination, rather than formal and analytic” (Harlow 1987, 9). She engaged with the words of Bolivian Domitila Barrios de Chungara to critique universalizing feminist theorists who privilege and isolate gender as a category of analysis. “For us,” Harlow quotes Barrios de Chungara, “the first and main task isn’t to fight against our compañeros, but with them to change the system we live in for another” (Harlow 1986c, 508). Harlow discussed the variety of ways women and men in the third world inscribed women’s liberation within popular struggles against forces of oppression and insisted on the “new relational possibilities” in these narratives (ibid., 516).

Her analysis challenged disciplinary borders and individual authorship. She engaged multiple contexts, texts, and voices syncretically within a single page, which one reviewer described as “maddening” though “inspired” (Gelfand 1993, 20). Harlow refused linear and hierarchical methods of reading and analysis. She read the logic of prisons and institutions of higher education with and through one another in her book, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992). In this book, Harlow examined counter-hegemonic narratives to construct a new historical record and challenge dominant institutions using prison memoirs, novels, short stories, autobiographies, personal letters, poetry, and cinema from Lebanon, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Guatemala, El Salvador, Kenya, and Cuba, among others. She persistently challenged the arrogant certainty of imperial and colonial orderings of the world, the extinguishing of revolutionary thinkers, and the single solution in struggles against oppression. It was imperative to assume “open-ended histories” (Harlow 1996, 57-58) in concrete struggles as well as in the realm of the literary. The “necessity of historical endings” (Harlow 1996, 58) limits the literary possibilities and misrecognizes our historical realities.

Ghassan Kanafani describes an exchange in Palestine in 1920 between poet Wadi‘ al-Bustani and a British Public Prosecutor following a demonstration during which protesters chanted a poem composed by al-Bustani:

Public Prosecutor: Statements have been made that you were carried shoulder-high, and that you said to the people who were following behind you: “Oh Christians, Oh Muslims.”
The Accused: Yes.
Public Prosecutor: And you also said: “To whom have you left the country?”
The Accused: Yes.
Public Prosecutor: Then you said: “Kill the Jews and unbelievers.”
The Accused: No. That violates the meter and the rhyme. I could not have said that. What I said was both rhyming and metrical. It is called poetry.[2]

Al-Bustani used artistic principles in his anti-colonial resistance, but not to protect the sacredness of poetry from the stain of politics. After all, he was leading a chant of his poetry to protest British colonial politics in Palestine. His defense of poetry was his defense. Kanafani found it important that al-Bustani’s closing defended poetry according to its own standards. The poet set the frame of reference for understanding art in times of revolt. Harlow similarly insisted on her own frame of reference as she wrote, read, and translated; stood in solidarity with those in struggle; and took seriously the histories that produced their poetry and prose. Her politics of narrating was an act of renewing these histories in contemporary struggles of liberation and justice.


RANIA JAWAD is assistant professor and current chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at Birzeit University. She writes on performance politics in Palestine, Arab theatre, and cultural politics in colonial contexts. Her book project “The Art of the Real” considers the violence of settler colonialism in relation to constructions of the “real” in Palestine. Contact: [email protected]



[1] Harlow draws this phrase out in her memorial essay honoring Edward Said’s passing (Harlow 2003). The phrase is taken from Said 2003.

[2] I cite from the English translation (Kanafani 1972).



Gelfand, Elissa. 1993. “Liberation Struggles.” Review of Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention, by Barbara Harlow. The Women’s Review of Books 10, no. 10-11: 20.

Harlow, Barbara. 1986a. Introduction to “Third World Theorizing.” Special issue of the Journal of the Society for Critical Exchange 21: i-ii.

——. 1986b. “Egyptian Intellectuals and the Debate on the ‘Normalization of Cultural Relations.’” Cultural Critique, no. 4: 33-58.

——. 1986c. “From the Women’s Prison: Third World Women’s Narratives of Prison.” Feminist Studies 12, no. 3: 501-524.

——. 1987. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen.

——. 1990. Introduction to Kanafani’s “Thoughts on Change and the ‘Blind Language.’” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 10: 132-136.

——. 1992. Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention. Hanover: Wesleyen University Press.

——. 1996. After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing. New York: Verso.

——. 2003. “Remember the Solidarity Here and Everywhere.” Middle East Report 229: 4-7.

Kanafani, Ghassan. 1966. Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine, 1948-1966. Arabic. Beirut: Institute for Arab Research.

——. 1972. The 1936-39 Revolt in Palestine. New York: Committee for a Democratic Palestine.

——. 1984. Palestine’s Children. Translated by Barbara Harlow. Washington D.C. and London: Heinemann/Three Continents Press.

——-. 1990. “Thoughts on Change and the ‘Blind Language.’” Translated by Barbara Harlow and Nejd Yeziji. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 10: 137-157.

Said, Edward. 2003. “Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony,” Counterpunch,

September 25. /

Selim, Samah. 2011. “Toward a New Literary History.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43, no. 4: 734-736.


Volume 13:1 is now available!

Volume 13:1 features cover artwork by Gohar Dashti, a themed section on Egyptian women writers, and a photo essay by Noor Al-Qasimi. It also features a special forum, “Feminist Perspectives on the 2016 Military Coup Attempt in Turkey,” which is freely available through August 2017 at

To view the Table of Contents and download articles, please visit our Current Issue page. To see what’s to come in Volume 13:2, please visit our Forthcoming Issue page.


Congratulations to 2016 AMEWS Book Award winner, Ellen McLarney!

Congratulations to 2016 AMEWS Book Award winner Ellen McLarney, a member of the JMEWSEditorial Board! The annual prize recognizes Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening (Princeton University Press 2015) for excellence in the field of Middle East gender, women’s and sexuality studies.

In the decades leading up to the Arab Spring in 2011, when Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime was swept from power in Egypt, Muslim women took a leading role in developing a robust Islamist presence in the country’s public sphere. Soft Force examines the writings and activism of these women—including scholars, preachers, journalists, critics, actors, and public intellectuals—who envisioned an Islamic awakening in which women’s rights and the family, equality, and emancipation were at the center. McLarney shows how women used “soft force”—a women’s jihad characterized by nonviolent protest—to oppose secular dictatorship and articulate a public sphere that was both Islamic and democratic. McLarney draws on memoirs, political essays, sermons, newspaper articles, and other writings to explore how these women imagined the home and the family as sites of the free practice of religion in a climate where Islamists were under siege by the secular state. While they seem to reinforce women’s traditional roles in a male-dominated society, these Islamist writers also reoriented Islamist politics in domains coded as feminine, putting women at the very forefront in imagining an Islamic polity.

Congratulations to Reina Lewis!

Congratulations to Reina Lewis for earning an Honorable Mention in the 2016 AMEWS Book Award competition! Lewis was recognized for her new monograph, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures (Duke University Press 2015).

In the shops of London’s Oxford Street, girls wear patterned scarves over their hair as they cluster around makeup counters. Alongside them, hip twenty-somethings style their head-wraps in high black topknots to match their black boot-cut trousers. Participating in the world of popular mainstream fashion—often thought to be the domain of the West—these young Muslim women are part of an emergent cross-faith transnational youth subculture of modest fashion. In treating hijab and other forms of modest clothing as fashion, Reina Lewis counters the overuse of images of veiled women as “evidence” in the prevalent suggestion that Muslims and Islam are incompatible with Western modernity. Muslim Fashion contextualizes modest wardrobe styling within Islamic and global consumer cultures, interviewing key players including designers, bloggers, shoppers, store clerks, and shop owners. Focusing on Britain, North America, and Turkey, Lewis provides insights into the ways young Muslim women use multiple fashion systems to negotiate religion, identity, and ethnicity.


Vol. 12:3 is now out!

Volume 12:3, “The Gender and Sexuality of Militarization and War,” features cover artwork by Khaled Akil, five new articles, several exciting reviews and Third Space contributions, as well as an essay remembering the work of Fatima Mernissi (1940–2015). To view the Table of Contents and download articles, please visit our Current Issue page. To see what’s to come in Volume 13:1, please visit our Forthcoming Issue page.


Call for Papers: Decolonizing Sex and Sexuality

The Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies invites sexuality and gender scholars working in any discipline or interdisciplinary area in the interpretive social sciences and humanities to submit area-focused manuscripts of no more than 10,000 words on any topic related to Decolonizing Sex and Sexualities. The highest quality manuscripts will be published as articles in a themed JMEWS issue in 2018.

Competitive manuscripts: 1) substantiate a thesis based on original scholarship; 2) are conceptually coherent and clear; 3) are grounded in primary sources (literary, visual, archival, textual, ethnographic, artistic, legal, and so on); and 4) engage with pertinent questions that emerge from region-focused and transnational sexuality and feminist scholarship.

We use the term decolonization to refer to the work of producing sexuality and feminist scholarship and theory focused on the specificities of the region. We seek manuscripts that challenge dominant notions of decolonization and postcoloniality in relation to sex, sexuality, and feminism; critically engage with scholarship and theory from the metropole; forge new or less travelled directions, including on non-normative and non-conforming embodiments and life; or address novel or taken-for-granted questions, including how to define queer and feminist.

Possible questions include: How do non-normative affects, forms of belonging, practices, and aesthetic configurations in the Middle East challenge theory’s often universalizing assumptions? How are sex, sexuality, and queer taken up or not in these contexts? How might modes of life, engagement and expression that never use such terms be theorized as queer, including from past historical settings and older texts? How do occupation, war, militarism, and displacement impact or produce specific non-normative practices, identities, and scholarship? What does the Middle East as an empirical focus offer sex, sexuality and queer theories?

Manuscripts that meet the JMEWS threshold of development will be submitted for double-blind peer review. JMEWS is committed to an efficient review process where most submitted manuscripts are resolved within 12 months. Please follow all JMEWS submission guidelines for article manuscripts, including for reference quality and style, transliteration, and word count. Manuscripts are due on or before June 15, 2017 to our online submission system. Questions may be directed to [email protected].

Volume 12:2 is now available!

Our new issue, “Everyday Intimacies of the Middle East,” is now available online! Guest edited by Aslı Zengin and Sertaç Sehlikoglu, Volume 12:2 features striking cover artwork by Mona Hatoum and tribute essays to Assia Djebar (1936-2015).

Call for Papers: The Gender and Sexuality of Borders and Margins

JMEWS invites feminist scholars working in any discipline or interdisciplinary area in the interpretive social sciences and humanities to submit area-specific manuscripts on any topic related to the theme of The Gender and Sexuality of Borders and Margins. Manuscripts may address any historical period in any part of the region. Areas of focus may relate to refugees, domestic workers, migration or migrants, law, cartography, dispersal, violence, ethnic or religious “minorities,” queers, gender and sexual non-conformity, sex work, and so on. Manuscripts are expected to substantiate a thesis based on original scholarship grounded in primary sources (literary, visual, archival, textual, ethnographic, artistic) and engage with relevant transnational gender and sexuality scholarship. The highest quality manuscripts will be published as articles in a JMEWS themed issue in 2017. Please follow all submission guidelines for articles, including word count. Manuscripts are due on or before June 15, 2016 to our online submission system.

Questions may be directed to [email protected]